Last year, my photography website got hacked. It took me about four months to get it back up, mainly because I wanted to make the most of the situation and implement a complete redesign. The worst part of that headache wasn’t the web design process itself, but rather the excruciating process of selecting a new portfolio.
Whether you’re creating a wordpress portfolio or utilizing a hosting site like Squarespace, a photographer’s portfolio website is, perhaps, the most important tool they have to market both their work and themselves. Besides something posted on social media, an online portfolio is usually the first set of images a prospective client sees when seeking out, or even stumbling up, a photographer’s work. As with most things that are critical to a business, building photography portfolio websites isn’t easy; it takes time, effort, and difficult decisions to come out with a great portfolio. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years about how to build a great photography portfolio in order to showcase your amazing photography and put your best foot forward.
Limit Your Portfolio Site to Your Absolute Best Photos
Unfortunately, most forms of art are defined by their weakest links. If a book, or a movie, or a song — or anything that is composed of a series of parts — has a great climax, but the parts leading up to it and coming after it isn’t any good, then the audience won’t see the work as a whole as good. The same goes for a photography portfolio. Regardless of your photography style or subjects, if you have a bad image (or, god forbid, a series of bad images) in your portfolio, that’s the one that people will tend to remember, and they’ll begin to judge your best work based on your worst. If you’re going to be defined by your weakest image, it will serve you well if your weakest image is still a great one. Be sure to highlight a-list photos only.
Extra tip: Include both black and white and colorful images. The client will want to see a range and this is an easy way to show a variation on your capabilities.
Only Show What You Want to Shoot
This one is easily overlooked. If you want to shoot outdoor adventure photos for a living, don’t include wedding photography on your portfolio site. If you want to shoot food, don’t include fashion photography in your photography portfolio examples. What you show in your image gallery will be what you get hired for, so unless you need the money from everything you can get, it’s best to make your portfolio more specialized. Another good option, if necessary, is to create a second website or branding for your other kinds of work. I know photographers who focus on commercial photography, but also shoot weddings on occasion. The best ones have created a second set of branding — website, social media accounts, or even a blog post etc. — to focus on their wedding work and keep the genres separate.
Keep Your Target Audience In Mind
Try not forget who you are marketing your images to. Are you marketing yourself to editorial art directors or to recently engaged brides-to-be? Or you marketing yourself to their mothers? Remembering your target audience will help you select the images that they would most like to see. A good portfolio is in tune with its audience.
There are a lot — and I mean a lot — of photographers out there who put images on their portfolio that they could never recreate (whether they just got incredibly lucky with the light that day, or had a model who needed zero help posing). Somehow, they have a great image that they want to share in a portfolio that they have very little chance of being able to make again. The worst and most common offenders of this are those who include images they took at photo workshops during an instructor’s class. Please: if you go to a workshop, and another photographer sets up a scene, lighting, model, etc. for an image, and you pop the trigger on your camera and take a shot of that, you did not create that image, and it’s not something to put in your portfolio. It’s something for you to learn from, not to market as your own, original work.
Ask For Help
Being your own editor is possibly the most difficult in photography. Learning lighting, camera tricks, how to pose people, etc., can all be learned over time. Knowing which of your photos highlight the best image quality is far more difficult and takes far longer to master. Unfortunately, we all become emotionally attached to our images. We have what we think is an incredible image, but oftentimes it’s our memory of the situation that was awesome. I’ve taken a huge number of images out of my portfolio when I realized that the image itself, with no backstory or context, wasn’t great — what I saw in it was my memory of what was happening when I shot it. The best option is to ask a photographer friend for help weeding out the bad images from your portfolio. It helps if that person is a better photographer than you are, as well!
There are certain things you should avoid entirely when compiling a photography portfolio. For starters, don’t include entire sessions/shoots or too many images from the same shoot or of the same model. Pick one or two images from each wedding that really stand out instead of 10 from the same wedding, or worse, an entire wedding. If someone is looking at your website and keeps seeing photos from the same shoot over and over, they’ll start to think you haven’t had many clients or haven’t had many good shoots. It’s also good to watch your editing style. If you have images you shot ten years ago but have changed your editing style since then, it’s best to go back and re-edit those older images if you want to include them on your website so that the style is consistent. In a portfolio, consistency is key.
But perhaps the biggest faux-pas for a portfolio is for it to stop changing. Your portfolio should always be evolving and becoming a better version of itself. If you leave it without updating it for a year, you’re doing yourself a disservice, since a portfolio is something that will never be finished. Just as your photography skills should always be improving, your portfolio should be developing in a way that pushes you forward instead of holding you back. If your portfolio becomes stagnant, then you will too.